Kelly Cheverie lives and works only a few kilometres from the land his ancestors – one of the original Acadian families on Prince Edward Island – originally settled in the 1600s.
The gently rolling landscape in East Point, PEI, is where Cheverie Family Farm grows spelt, rye and oats. Strawberries and wild cranberries are harvested, too. Purchased originally as a 3-acre plot by Cheverie’s great-grandfather, the land has been passed down through his grandfather and father, each of whom added a parcel to the original homestead. Today, the farm spans 200 acres.
“If you have good land to start with [and] treat it with respect, it’ll work for you,” says Cheverie. Thanks to his close proximity to the ocean, lobster shells, crab shells and seaweed are his fertilizers. Cheverie’s is one of a growing number of farms on the Island going organic.
Theresa Richards, Executive Director of the Atlantic Canada Organic Regional Network, considers Cheverie a pioneer of organic farming in Atlantic Canada. She reserves that moniker for any farm that has been certified organic for 10 years or more; Cheverie’s farm was certified in 2001.
Being an organic farmer, however, isn’t a simple matter of adding an adjective. It requires annual audits and inspections conducted by a third party examiner regulated by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
The term organic has become trendy these days, but that’s not what drives Cheverie. A main force behind his rationale for farming organically is historical.
“That’s how civilization took place, from the hunter-gatherer existence. And then when the first Europeans came over here, they had basically nothing, other than every bit of knowledge they had and hard work … and they survived,” Cheverie says. “If that worked then, why wouldn’t it work today?“
Cheverie relies on the past in other ways, too. Some equipment he employs has been passed down with the farm. Other equipment, “destined for the scrapheap,” he says, was purchased cheaply. Cheverie still uses a Thomas Hall seed washer built at the turn of the last century in Summerside, PEI, for which he builds his own replacement parts. His resourcefulness means capital costs remain low.
As would be expected, Cheverie has another connection to the past: he has an off-the-farm day job working construction. His father worked construction also, and he was a lobster fisherman. His grandfather worked as a blacksmith as well as farmed. Tending the farm comes after Cheverie gets home and on weekends.
According to Statistics Canada, dependence on off-farm income is a reality for most farms in Canada. Its latest statistics (2011) show the average farm income in Canada was $110,563, with more than $83,000 coming from off-farm income. In the same year on Prince Edward Island, the average farm income was $90,967 with more than $66,000 derived through employment off the farm.
Organic farming, however, could be bucking that trend, suggests Richards. “We’ve heard reports from all across the country of [organic] farmers making more money per acre so that they’re able to make a living,” she says.
Although there are no hard numbers, a fact that Richards hopes to help correct in the coming years, her perception is that more organic farm families are realizing the majority of income through farming.
“The other thing that’s important and unique to Atlantic Canada is that organic farmers in our region are very reliant on direct sales. So farmer’s markets, the community-supported agriculture, farm gate sales are some of the primary ways that they’re marketing their products, which means, of course, they don’t have to deal with the distribution,” says Richards. “They’re able to get the full cost of what they’re producing from consumers. But they’re also able to explain to their consumers what they’re buying with a product.”
Like so many farmers, Cheverie is also resourceful in finding outlets for his products. He sells his grains to Speerville Mills in New Brunswick. The strawberries and some cranberries are mostly sold to the PEI Preserve Company. Given all his effort, the question remains, is it worth it?
“I guess if you’re an accountant and went over hours and stuff like that,” he says, “financially it wouldn’t be a big incentive for people.” It’s an answer given with tongue firmly in cheek.
Ask him what it’s like to be on a farm owned by his father and grandfather and great-grandfather and you receive an answer swiftly delivered with equal measures of deliberateness, confidence and sincerity:
“Basically, you’re the steward.”